Under the Influence – In the Aeroplane over the Sea

Today’s column was originally going to be about the Elephant 6 collective. But as I was writing, I noticed an inordinate amount of time and space given to one particular group, namely one specific album from said group. Then an event occurred last week that confined to me that I shift focus. While the Elephant 6 story is engaging, it will be written another time. Instead, we are going to look into Neutral Milk Hotel‘s phenomenal In the Aeroplane over the Sea.

As drummer for the band Olivia Tremor Control, Jeff Mangum was a part of one of the more influential indie bands of the first half of the ’90s. Psychedelic martyrs like Syd Barrett were very influential on the members’ approach not only to music, but also to life in general. But it was Brian Wilson who served as idol by which they judged their music. In fact, most of the collective’s music was recorded at Pet Sounds Studios in Athens, Georgia. Neutral Milk Hotel was Mangum’s solo project that he had been working on since high school, long before Olivia Tremor Control. When OTC called it a day, Mangum focused solely on his own work. In 1996, he released On Avery Island, a melodic album of simple arrangements and did well to establish Mangum’s name.

In the Aeroplane over the Sea is one of those rare albums that transcend not only the conditions that created it but also all of the emotional attachment that is has garnered in its short time. As the years pass, its regard will only raise. A book about its creation, as part of the lauded 33 and 1/3 series (which have books written about OK Computer and Led Zeppelin), will be released on Halloween this year.

The album could be loosely described as a concept album about the life and death of Anne Frank. Through track titles (“Holland, 1945” or “Communist Daughter”) and details of her life (“But then they buried her alive/One evening 1945/with just her sister at her side”) pepper the album, it also veers wildly into the fantastic (“Now she’s a little boy in Spain/playing pianos made of flames”). A listener can delve into the music without knowing any of that however and just listen for its discussion’s on life (“Isn’t it strange to be anything at all”) and what is truly important.

Utilizing a wide array of instruments, including flugelhorn, zanzithophone, theremin, and short wave radio, the musical heart of this album is as varied as the mental state of its creator. Like The Beach Boys greatest, you can hear Mangum’s valiantly trying not to lose his sanity in delivering his impassioned pleas for love and understanding. From heavily arranged orchestrated pieces to stark acoustic numbers, Aeroplane never fails in imparting to the listener true emotion.

The connections listeners have made to Aeroplane shattered any wall between art, artist, and audience. Many people have written (myself included) about the emotional attachments people have made with “emo,” but there is a visceral element that emo only wished it could harness. Fans from all walks of life have approached Jeff and told him how the album changed their lives. Mangum couldn’t handle the reaction and bared souls the fans of his opus on him. Unable to carry the responsibility, he put the band “on hiatus,” and walked away from music, magnifying the albums legend, and his mystique, in the process.

I discovered the Elephant 6 bands in 2001 after reading what I thought was an over the top essay on the magnificence of Aeroplane. Intrigued, I checked out the album. Listening to the title track, I was surprised what he was able to do with a pedestrian song structure. Putting energy and emotion into one of the most overused chord progressions in music (also heard on Mazzy Starr‘s “Fade Into You”), Mangum proves the age-old maxim it isn’t what is played, but how it is played that counts.

Aeroplane was one of the first albums that made me realize how little I know about music, and opened my eyes to the realization that the best albums don’t always get the best press. Released in 1998, I was aware of good music at the time, or at least I thought I was. Checking back at my old magazines, favorable reviews were made of the album and made several year-end lists, but it wasn’t featured as a pinnacle of great art. Neutral Milk Hotel was a band I had heard of (if only for its dumb name), yet I never had a desire to hear them. They always just floated under the radar.

If it weren’t for the essay, it would have been years before I discovered them. I certainly hope that someone will be inclined to check out Neutral Milk Hotel after reading this column. Whenever I enter a music store, a voice enters in the back of my head that there are albums here that I have never heard of that will one-day amaze me. Indeed, there is music being released now that I will stumble upon in 2012. A big reason for my drive to discover bands constantly is to not deprive myself of that wasted time. All musicphiles I know feel that same way.

Though more subdued then Mangum, Sufjan Stevens carries many of the same musical threads in his music. As he has shown in his ambitious states albums, Stevens weaves the concrete with the mythical, and in the process, tackles some heavy subject matter. Though they were well established by Aeroplane’s release, The Flaming Lips latest work displays the same wondrous combination of innocence, maturity, and reality. Some cynical critics have gone so far as state that the Lips learned their earnestness from Mangum’s masterpiece. Though I don’t agree with that sentiment, any fan of The Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots would be wise to pick up Aeroplane.

In was big news last week when Jeff Mangum appeared on stage during an Apples in Stereo show in New York City and played a couple of songs. Though he has done this sporadically before with nothing further coming from it, there is a buzz that this time something, anything, will come of it. The Internet community has been collectively channeling its energy, in hopes of convincing Mangum out of retirement, not realizing it was this kind of adulation that pushed him away in the first place. Though I must admit I am contributing to the furor by writing the column.

What’s going around

Fearless Freaks – The Flaming Lips DVD
– While I was doing this week’s column, I realized that I hadn’t seen this documentary, which has recently been released on DVD. I missed its theatrical run and, after seeing it, I really regret it. It is amazing to see a band that admits they were originally just ripping off The Butthole Surfers become one of the most critically praised bands in this young century. It took a couple of turns I wasn’t expecting, but watching it made me appreciate their musical message of life and love.

The Cloud Room
-I had been listening to their single “Hey, now now” for awhile now, but I hadn’t had a chance to hear the new album. I finally got my hands on it, and it is great from beginning to end. I will have a review up later this week. Definitely worth checking out.

The Departure – Dirty Words
-Yet another band that I have been listening to for awhile but just recently copped their debut. After consecutive singles whetted my appetite, their debut shows a maturity that defies their age (they formed in February of last year).These guys bring an original approach to the post-punk/disco fusion that has been dominating the musical landscape the last couple of years.